Recently, I had the opportunity to co-edit a book entitled, “Southeast Asia, Infected and Interrupted: Elevating Critical Voices on the State of Human Rights and Peace in the Time of Covid-19” with two colleagues, Joel Mark Barredo from the Philippines and Dr Herlambang P. Wiratraman from Indonesia.
This book features a total of 72 articles on topics covering all Southeast Asian countries. It is first initiated by the Strengthening Human Rights and Peace Research in ASEAN/Southeast Asia Program (SHAPE-SEA), in its pursuit of increased knowledge on human rights and peace and to promote academic-activism.
This project is one of the earliest initiatives by an organisation to open its doors to anyone living in or concerned about the situation in Southeast Asia to write rapid assessments about the impacts of Covid-19 on any human rights and peace issues.
This book is originated from the digital project entitled Southeast Asia in Crisis: Opinions on the State of Human Rights and Peace in the Time of Covid-19 almost a year ago, in March 2020, at the height of increased human rights and peace concern in most countries in the Southeast Asia region.
The selected pieces in this edited book came from the more than 100 articles featured in that digital project. This project did not only allow for knowledge building from the ground, but also facilitated the growth of a community of knowledge frontliners.
The 72 articles in this book represent voices from all 11 Southeast Asian countries covering issues related to politics and democracy, gender and sexuality, vulnerable groups, technology and information, and public health and well-being.
A year after today, the region continues to suffer from the pandemic politically, socially and economically with some countries record increasing rate of positive cases such as Malaysia.
What is distinct about the book is that it accommodated anyone who wanted to be heard and contribute to the project’s vision. All 72 think pieces featured in the book provide various critical assessments on the state of human rights and peace amid Covid-19 in Southeast Asia.
As we know, the handling of a crisis, regardless of its cause and its impact, must and should not violate human rights and fundamental principles. Furthermore, claiming one’s full right to health must be guaranteed by duty-bearers i.e. the State, despite one’s socio-economic positionality and legal status.
Based on insights and analyses in the book, the reality is different from what is imagined more ideally. Government policies, especially in the midst of a stronger anti-criticism and authoritarian regime in the region, have created the opposite situation. This can be clearly seen in the case of Malaysia with its high cases on daily basis and nowadays, with more from working places such as the factories and construction sites.
I can’t help but to wonder to what extent the protection of human rights is provided for citizens and non-citizens? What is the standard of procedures (SOPs) that are in place in these working places that are considered as essential services? Basically, the protection of the workers’ health is neglected.
These are also the questions as raised in this book, and are not exclusively take place in Malaysia. Contributions in this book reaffirm the thesis of many academics and observers, where Covid-19 has been a real challenge for all different stakeholders and there have been strong arguments where the direction of human rights amidst this pandemic has not been encouraging.
Yet on a brighter side, the pandemic has revealed the community resilience and the strength of civil society groups, particularly public health workers, human rights defenders, and peace builders, that play a significant role in providing assistance and services to the people who are in need but are left out.
The theme division of this book reveals the immediate concerns in the region. The seven themes are: Regional Politics; Emergency Powers and Measures; Fundamental Freedoms; Healthcare and Social Care; Data, Information and Technology; Labor and Economic Safety Nets; and Living at the Margins.
As you can find in the book which is made available on SHAPE-SEA website, the contributors of this book performed rapid, evidence-based analyses on the increased threats to conditions related to human rights and peace at the local, national and regional levels. For instance, a number of Southeast Asian countries such as Cambodia and Thailand have used the pandemic to justify stricter laws that impacted on the exercise of human rights.
The Philippines, too, faced the similar situation, where the new anti-terrorism law is passed in the midst of Covid-19 that sending a chilling message to human rights groups in the country where its human rights are already deteriorating.
These laws granted leaders sweeping powers to restrict the enjoyment of human rights by their citizens and that also included non-citizens such as migrant workers and refugees. Such form of discrimination and xenophobic sentiments are evident in countries such as in Singapore and Malaysia.
Along these lines, some of the authors also highlight some issues that are not in the limelight in most media and receive little attention, for instance, the impacts on different groups of women and children and LGBT groups. Countries like Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia are among the countries in Southeast Asia that witness a glaring inequality economically and socially in the midst of the pandemic where the marginalized groups continue to be left out and face hard time to manage their daily life, in which it directly brings the concerns such as the food security.
The availability of information and the accessibility of technology is another concern that is commonly shared by some authors, and it has been a challenge in the region, especially in countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Timor-Leste.
The pandemic also reveals the weakness of some countries in terms of healthcare, such as Indonesia and the Philippines where it witnesses a sharp increase of positive cases on a daily basis and also the danger that it has on the frontline workers.
In Malaysia, we are slowly seeing such trend. Although Brunei, Vietnam and Singapore are among the countries that receive more positive appraisals generally, however, we do not manage to receive much contribution from these countries, thus it is limited for the editors to be able to establish a strong stand on the situation of human rights in these countries.
In short, the pandemic brought out the best and worst in terms of how duty-bearers, particularly States, are managing the crisis, which threatened not only public health, but also multiple and intersecting human conditions.
While we are still waiting for a vaccine that will hopefully end our fear, it is critical to ensure that systems and structures are reformed to accommodate the demands of a post-Covid-19 world adequately.
In pursuit of rights-centred governance, plans and policies should respond appropriately to the different needs, especially of marginalised populations.